Build STEM Skills, but Don’t Neglect the Humanities
Who doesn’t stand in awe of the advances that science and its STEM siblings (technology, engineering, and math) have created to better our world? But since the time of Aristotle, it has also been recognized that the hard sciences and the humanities must walk side by side in governing human action.
Aristotle praised “practical wisdom” (the ancient Greek word is phronesis) – the middle ground between scientific knowledge (in Greek, episteme) and what he referred to as the “cunning intelligence” (in Greek, metis) of politicians, military generals, and Machiavellian business leaders. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he rejected that scientific knowledge alone could determine the affairs of the human social world, which he recognized as too complex and unpredictable to govern with certainty. Likewise he saw that cunning was insufficient to shape a society filled with the “good life.” Aristotle insisted that practical wisdom was required to advance the human race, because it would take into account what he called “the common good,” doing what is right for the majority of people living together in society.
Aristotle’s philosophy is still sound today. But to the extent that we side with him, we must challenge our modern era’s overwhelming emphasis on the STEM disciplines as the keys to progress. Yes, we will continue to welcome advances in computerization, robotics, communications, nanotechnologies, medicine, space exploration, and more – but to ensure these are in service of the good life, we must also advance our thinking in the humanities: philosophy, social affairs, and the arts. It is not either/or, but both.
Instead of just STEM, we should perhaps be promoting STEMMA – raising a new generation that also has greater capacities for managing collective human endeavors and appreciating the arts. Management education – the new “M” in the acronym – has not always been infused with humanistic thinking, but it must become more so. Our goal must be to cultivate the thoughtful enterprise leaders of the future. Meanwhile, regarding the “A,” how could it be beneficial to the future to deemphasize the arts, which inform our knowledge of beauty and meaning in human affairs? All the brilliant discoveries of STEM will not solve the grand challenges of today’s world – ignorance, poverty, intolerance, and political conflict – without the practical wisdom of humanities-trained leaders.
Let me illustrate my point. Imagine, if you will, that the STEM experts of the world make astonishing progress in the next two decades in physics, bioengineering, digitalization, nanotechology, and medicine. Say the future arrives as foretold by physicist and TV star Michio Kaku in Visions: How Science will Revolutionize the 21st Century: Humans live to age 150, disease is eradicated, space travelers regularly go to the far reaches of our planetary system, alternate realities are visible with the naked eye, and information of any type is available faster than the beat of a hummingbird’s wing. It’s a world in which Moore’s Law – the prediction made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would keep doubling at regular intervals – has held true, and Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns has been borne out. (Kurzweil predicts that the rate of scientific discovery will keep picking up, such that the amount of knowledge gained in the seven-year period of 2014-2021 will be equivalent to the entire previous century’s gains – and eventually, that a century’s worth of progress will happen within a month.)
Without doubt, the biggest feature on this future landscape will be the presence of artificial intelligence (AI). If you have not yet thought hard about the implications of this, I would refer you to Tim Urban’s insightful piece, “The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence.” Synthesizing the predictions of AI experts, Urban speculates that by 2040, we will have moved from the artificial narrow intelligence (ANI) that cars and refrigerators now have, up to artificial general intelligence (AGI), in which computers are as smart as humans. And that is when things really take off. At that point, AI leaps unimaginably quickly into artificial superintelligence (ASI). (Thank you again, Law of Accelerating Returns.) Urban explains how this might happen literally within hours, in what he calls an Intelligence Explosion, and hints at the mind-bending implications: “Superintelligence of that magnitude is not something we can remotely grasp, any more than a bumblebee can wrap its head around Keynesian Economics. In our world, smart means a 130 IQ and stupid means an 85 IQ – we don’t have a word for an IQ of 12,952.”
We cannot take these predictions lightly, given the enormous leaps we are already witnessing each year in STEM fields. Many AI experts subscribe to Vernor Vinge’s 1993 prediction that we will reach the point of “singularity,” when technology’s intelligence exceeds our own and “the human era will end,” and accept Kurzweil’s predictions of accelerating technological progress.
And therefore, we cannot march boldly into the future without demanding rapid advancement, too, in the faculties required to preserve our human dignity in a world of ASI. Our capacities for ethical decision-making, compassion, and creativity must also grow, along with our intellectual capabilities to deepen our understanding of the human need for connection, accomplishment, and meaning. Humans are not robots and neurons are not digital switches. It is only through the humanities that we will be able to appreciate the answers that superintelligent computers will give us when we ask them the hard questions. It is only through the humanities that we will increasingly recognize and build on what we humans uniquely are. It is through STEM plus MA progress that we have the chance to become practically wise.
This post is part of a series leading up to the 7th Global Drucker Forum, in Vienna, Austria, of which HBR is a sponsor. To read more posts related to the theme of Claiming Our Humanity-Managing in the Digital Age, visit the Drucker Forum’s blog.